"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Not Quite Spellbound

We expect a lot from our Donmar. Under Michael Grandage’s stewardship we’ve had star turns from the Jude Law Hamlet to the Derek Jacobi Lear (currently playing Llandudno which shows true dedication), fresh as paint translations of The Wild Duck, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Phaedra, envelope-pushing exports such as Red, Piaf and Creditors and a clutch of successful Sondheims.

It seems faintly bizarre that as his swansong, Grandage should select 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  For all its Gleeky zeitgeist, it’s a thin and trite one-act musical based around the slightly creepy public competitions which attract the unsporty and dentally-braced from America’s high schools.

Its cloying annoying moralising, feeble spoofing of the American competition ethic or naked ambition is too wearisome for analysis.  Relax and try to enjoy the fun which is increased by the co-opting of three or four audience members to the stage as additional spellers.

The book, by Rachel Sheinkin, follows a more simplified path than the movies Spellbound or Akeelah and the Bee and the Donmar is brightly transformed into a school gymnasium adorned with blue and yellow pennants, but the characters are as one-dimensional as South Park cartoons and form a box-ticking minority list of overachieving Asian, chubby boy scout, gay geek, straight geek, neglected daughter and right-on feminist.

They’re marshalled by the under-used Katherine Kingsley in a leggy blonde homage to Sarah Palin's pageant queen vacuity, partnered by an excellent Steve Pemberton (a long way from Benidorm) as the Vice Principal with a nice line in withering put-downs and sardonic definitions for the spelling challenges.

Apart from a momentarily catchy title song, the music – by William Finn – is peppy but forgettable, which is a shame because the young actors have good voices and attack the songs with gusto.

On that subject it’s worth noting that there’s possibly no-one in West End theatre who works harder than Grandage’s long-time collaborator as Casting Director Anne McNulty to unearth aspiring talent.  From drama schools and provincial profit-shares she has found at least three highly promising young actors: David Fynn as the pudgy know-all boy-scout, Hayley Gallivan as the wistful romantic Olive and Chris Carswell as a home-schooled hayseed all exhibit strong singing, nifty footwork and a total commitment to the project. Hopefully they’ll each get better projects soon.

Incidentally, some of the words used to test the audience members don’t actually appear in Merriam-Webster’s American dictionary, and we suspect cheating. 


This review written for Londonist


There’s a whiff of mothballs at Richmond, and it’s not all coming from the audience in this starry but stolid revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit

A glossy 2009 Broadway production showcased Angela Lansbury in cracking and crackpot form as clairvoyant Madam Arcati and Rupert Everett in a role he was born to play, the suave and languid author Charles Condomine.

At Richmond on the last leg of its 'immediately prior to West End' tour, a new British production heads for the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue next week and features Alison Steadman as the medium, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris reprising their Cold Feet pairing as the novelist and his wife, and Ruthie Henshall as the ghostly ex accidentally manifested during a séance.

From the same Triumph/Theatre Royal Bath production stable as the Kim Cattrall Private Lives and helmed by Thea Sharrock who directed the brilliant Daniel Radcliffe Equus, it has all the ingredients of a surefire hit, and yet it doesn’t quite come off.

Even the indulgent Richmond audience wasn’t lapping it up, although they seemed to appreciate the physical comedy better than the dialogue which is only partially explained by the ruckus at the desk in the foyer when several complained their hearing-impaired headsets weren’t working.

It’s smartly costumed with authentic late 1930s gowns, but both script and setting feel stale: a childless and fustian middle class marriage afloat on a wash of cocktails and coffee fetched by servants is all about to be swept away by the war, and whilst there’s no spectre of the coming realities in Coward’s script, this production doesn’t sustain a constant barrage of bright and brittle banter either.

Coward wrote (and Margaret Rutherford made flesh) Madame Arcati as a tweedy countrywoman with an almost professorial interest in the occult – Steadman makes her much more strident which might be effective if it weren’t all on one note, and misses both the charming battiness and the sensitive vulnerability of the character.  Perhaps she’s spent too long in easy sitcoms like Gavin and Stacey and Fat Friends but this isn’t her best work and doesn’t compare with the excellence of her last West End outing in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy.

Where Lansbury was balletic and hummed to herself as she danced about the stage, Steadman grunts and feints hand jives that look as though she’s pioneering hip-hop fifty years ahead of its time.

Norris is the most successful in the thankless role of Ruth, the domestically-rooted second wife, but she plays it with less petulance and more elegant authority than the part usually receives and so is more fairly matched with the impishness of Ruthie Henshall’s shoeless and footloose Elvira.

The set, by the usually laudable Hildegard Bechtler has predictable art deco touches but looks cheap with a tackily painted piano and centerpiece terrible green sofa with rigid polyurethane foam cushions which weren’t around till the 50’s.

This review written for Londonist

Monday, 21 February 2011

Twisted Sisters

Review of Snake in the Grass, by Alan Ayckbourn
at The Print Room, London W2.

In 1985, Susan Wooldridge (centre) made her name as Daphne Manners in ‘The Jewel In the Crown’ by having a nasty shock in an overgrown garden. You turn your back for 25 years and she’s at it again this time in a tense and twisting three-hander by Alan Ayckbourn which - in his 61st script - combines his well-documented empathy for the anguish of suburban womanhood with an unfulfilled ambition to write a ‘serious’ play.

Wooldridge is solidly middle-middle class Annabel Chester who returns - after thirty years and a failed marriage in Tasmania - with Barbour and headscarf but no trace of Australian accent to inherit the family home, and to spar uneasily with her sister Miriam who has tended their ailing father until reaching the end of her tether.  This could be Ayckbourn re-working Sarah and Annie from 'The Norman Conquests' (the characters on which Barbara and Margo were based for 'The Good Life' as a matter of fact) if it weren't for the suggestion that Miriam may just - slightly - have overdosed papa with his medication and – ever so gently – pushed him down the stairs.

It could go either way - spirited comic banter, or kitchen sink meltdown if the situation weren't complicated by the arrival of father's long-serving but recently-sacked nurse, played by Mossie Smith as a muscular prole with the stomping energy of a cage fighter looking to land her first punch on the square jaw of Wooldridge's clumsily bombastic Tory bitch - and with a nice sideline in blackmail.

They're well-matched if somewhat stock characters, so it's Miriam who captures the audience's attention in Sarah Woodward's intelligently finessed performance. She has the slight advantage that the author gives her the best lines and the most interesting motivations, but this is a naturalistic acting of the highest calibre.

It's this naturalism which helps resist the decline of the piece into schlock as it becomes a sinister ghost story through Ayckbourn’s cleverly controlled gradual escape of the darker detail of the disturbed relationships each of the women has had with the men in her life, and with each other.

The atmospherics are enabled superbly by William Dudley’s magisterially dilapidated tennis court set - how did they persuade such an ace designer to work in a relatively unknown fringe venue - and which could be a metaphor for the dessication of middle class society complete in every detail down to the rusted mower and dried out grass, and equally by Richard Howell’s creepily effective lighting and Neil Alexander’s subtle sound patterns.

There are flaws: the plotting will be easily anticipated by anyone who’s seen ‘Deathtrap’ or ‘Sleuth’ – the clues are so obviously planted they could come with potting shed labels, but director Lucy Bailey controls the pacing carefully to heighten the tension, and there’s every chance the hairs on the back of your neck will rise more than once before the denouement.

versions of this review appeared on ThePublicReviews and Londonist

Monday, 14 February 2011

Long night in Chiswick

It’s been a bit of a week for song cycles – Company at Southwark Playhouse has great tunes but doesn’t really lift the ‘book’ off the page, and The Last Five Years doesn’t even have one.

American composer Jason Robert Brown penned fourteen songs for a pair of actors: she sings the cycle going backwards from the breakdown of their marriage, he works forward from their first romantic tryst.  They never interact or touch except in the one number that marks their wedding.

That much is smart and original, and although ‘Dorothy’ entrant Lauren Samuels has a great voice for the material, she’s underdirected and at 22 patently too young to be wrestling the emotions of an about-to-be-divorced wife.  Christopher Pym is also a competent performer if somewhat studenty in his mannerisms and has a conspicuous weak 'r' in his diction.

That the evening isn’t totally gripping isn’t really their fault: Brown used to be heralded as the ‘Next Stephen Sondheim’ but despite a couple of encouraging awards about ten years ago, at 40 he hasn’t yet had the breakthrough show to take him mainstream and is looking increasingly like the Tim Henman of musical theatre.

All the songs are orchestrated with the same mounting crescendo – rising in the final bars to a stagey climax which makes each of them feel like a finale, although none delivers a satisfying chord resolution or in this un-nuanced production a lyric that truly engages the audience.  In a through-sung show, this is a serious flaw and you long for the obviously talented composer to collaborate on a better, scripted story.

On the plus side, Samuels shows great promise for her future work, the mirrored and symmetrical set by Ben M Rogers is stunning, and the band under Lee Freeman are terrific.  If their energy and virtuosity alone could float the show, it would be a winner.

This review written for Londonist

Loose Women, Tight Harmonies

Liza Minnelli may have taught us that Life is a Cabaret old chum but for many mature women it comes with a whiff of vodka and regret.  When brandished at men like a blunt weapon this can cause politicians to question whether feminism is still relevant, but when set to music it can be transformational.

Barb Jungr and Mari Wilson have been around a while: workaholic Jungr on a series of writing projects, her Brel, Elvis and Dylan albums as well as headlining at Café Carlyle in New York.  Wilson is simply a supercool Eighties icon, trademark beehive ditched in favour of a soft blonde bob, and the voice more honeyed and thoughtful.   Now they’re joined by Gwyneth Herbert whose fresh complexion and innocent expression belie an authentic jazz voice honed on late nights in Soho basements.

Kicking off with a slightly desperate ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ - its lyric ‘who makes it fun to spend your money, who calls you honey’ somewhat wasted on the front row tables-for-two populated by black-clad gentlemen picking at ‘leggero’ pizzas and chugging white Zinfandel, the trio found their mark better with The Stones' ‘Under My Thumb’ in harmonies so tight you could barely sense half a tone between them.

There’s plenty more in the same vein mashing up – and sending up – everything from ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’ and the B-52's rousing ‘Give Me Back My Man’ to a wickedly funny ‘Never Been To Me’.

The staging and banter between the numbers needs sorting out, and there’s something slightly disturbing about Mari Wilson’s camp delivery and double entendres – possibly under the influence of Jungr’s former comedy collaborator, it seems as if a small part of Julian Clary has rubbed off on her.

Whilst each has her solo, this is clearly Jungr’s show and a powerful, painful and distilled  ‘Woman in Love’ which could not only wipe the floor, walls and windows with Streisand also firmly asserts her position as the most impeccable interpreter of the ‘chanson’ of her own - or any subsequent - generation.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Pub Opera: Troy of the Rovers


Adaptor/Director : Kit Hesketh-Harvey
Musical Director: Stephen Hose
Set Design: James Perkins
Lighting: Derek Carlyle

TPR score : 4 Stars

Opera may not be the new rock and roll but a phalanx of brave companies with funky modern productions in a series of fringe theatres and pubs may soon ensure that no North London landlord will be able to hold his head up at the Licensed Victuallers Association without boasting of some Puccini served up with the pork scratchings. At the very least, ‘Troy Boy’ represents a bold advance for the juggernaut of boutique opera currently barrelling across London.

Scoring cabaret-to-Radio 4 professional wit Kit Hesketh-Harvey as librettist and director gives this version of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene class and polish, and the quality’s evident in a stylish set by James Perkins dexterously assembled from a series of Cycladic white blocks, and the welcome indulgence of a six-piece orchestra.

What’s not so clear are the theatrical devices which transpose the scenes from Sparta to Surbiton to Faliraki, motivations aren't always obvious from the recitative. Having Helen go to bed with her dreary suburban husband and dream herself on Olympus isn’t original, it featured in the Paris Chatelet production in 2001 with Felicity Lott, also modern dress and very comical.

This is part of the problem: it’s difficult to parody something which is already itself parodic - Offenbach was a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan and there are times in La Belle Helene when you could expect Agamemnon to chime in with a ‘here’s a how-de-do’. For me Troy Boy didn’t quite live up to its clever title since it's neither a smartly updated grand opera, nor deconstructed into a musical in the style of Tony Britten’s pioneering work with Music Theatre London.

Trimming some of the arias and introducing more dialogue may re-shape the piece to make it even more understandable and it could lose thirty minutes without damage. Whilst appreciating Hesketh-Harvey’s cleverness, because it’s applied to a comparatively rarely-performed opera with no famous tunes used as television advertisements, it doesn’t have the accessibility it might achieve if the same techniques were overlaid on Butterfly or Carmen.

The singing is almost flawless, and again London is fortunate to have a pool of assured and well developed young voices from which to cast. Rosalind Coad certainly climbs the mountain as Helen, and I liked her poutingly spoilt characterization as well as the power and clarity in her voice. Her lover Paris is a testing role for a lyric tenor, which Christopher Diffey inhabits superbly with bright, vaulting, almost over-sung high notes and the ensemble is excellent and frequently underpinned by the warm and beautifully supported Bass of Marcin Gesla as Agamemnon.

It is amazing that work of this quality can be presented for a ticket price of £12. I hope the cast are getting paid, but it’s the best bargain in town.

This review written for thepublicreviews.com

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Phone rings, door chimes, pretend you're out ...

Poor Steve Sondheim. During his 80th birthday year in 2010 his works were exhaustively produced and his dramatic entrails more pored over than in any autopsy. There’ll be less of a retrospective when he’s dead. In London, the revivals ranged from a lumpen ‘Follies’ atop a Walthamstow boozer to a puppyishly adoring all-star Albert Hall Prom which was the theatrical equivalent of humping the Great Man’s leg.

As the dustcart follows the Lord Mayor’s show, here comes Southwark Playhouse’s production. Company contains some of Sondheim’s best lyrics, is most autobiographically representative of his own views on relationships, but it’s not the best ‘book’ musical in the canon. Indeed, the script by George Furth is so inconsequential that the show works largely as a song cycle wherein married friends revolve round bachelor Bobby in a carousel of exhortation to find a wife. Updating it with iPhones and MacBooks robs it of a certain 70’s ‘Mad Men’ style and contemporaneous conventions about relationships, but does bring some fresh perspectives.

In his first fully-fledged directorship, Joe Fredericks allows too much unevenness: Siobhan McCarthy’s uncannily accurate impersonation of Bette Davis doing Margo Channing is funny but can undermine the power and pathos in her bravura rendition of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, Mark Curry’s archly dated portrayal of husband Larry clings more to Mr Clifford in Acorn Antiques than to Broadway, and for a musical so deeply rooted in Manhattan the accents wander widely and the singing projects some very English vowels.

Cassidy Janson as Amy scores highly for her comic timing and vocal precision in ‘Not Getting Married Today’ in which she’s partnered by the strong and charming voice of Greg Castiglioni as Paul. Two of Bobby’s single girlfriends also stand out: Katie Brayben as April the air hostess manages to find the comedy in the script, her dumb blonde resistance to Bobby’s chat-up lines were one of the few laugh-out-loud moments, and Michelle Bishop as spunky punk Marta takes command of ‘Another Hundred People’ with genuine panache.

Bobby is meant to be an enigma, often portrayed as a coolly suave playboy who degenerates into a self-pitying mess, but Rupert Young‘s performance showed less of an arc since his Bobby is a greasy sweaty cokehead from the outset, perpetually dishevelled and disoriented. It’s a more modern reading of the part and emotionally distanced from the audience, but improves in the second act when ‘Being Alive’ was thoughtfully phrased and strongly delivered.

The singing is mostly very fine indeed, but the production lacks pace - you could see the audience’s attention wander - entrances need more immediacy and less clunking over the underlit Bridge-of-Sighs-made-from-scaffolding set - and for the dialogue to crackle authentically, cues need to be picked up much more smartly.

This review written for www.londonist.com